This post has been corrected. See below.
It started with The Big Bang.
Not the still somehow controversial theory of the universe’s origins, the CBS comedy, “The Big Bang Theory.”
Before those two wacky physicists and adorably mismatched roommates Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) began wooing hearts and winning Emmys, the term “geek” was something of a pejorative. Proudly worn, perhaps, by those to whom it applied–comic book collectors, math heads, Trekkies, sci fi and fantasy fans and other obscure genre devotees–but certainly not in any way synonymous with popular, or influential or, heaven forbid, hot.
Now, of course, we live in a Brave New World. San Diego’s Comic-Con International is a pop cultural touchstone/marketing platform, video games are truly the next new art form and Stephen Colbert proudly brandishes his pricey replica of the Elven blade and Sting and quotes from “The Silmarillion.”
Meanwhile, every other feature film revolves around at least one Avenger and characters like “Bones’“ Temperance Brennan and not one but two versions of Sherlock Holmes dispense obscure factoids in the rapid-fire monotone that is a hallmark of the species.
YA fiction, with its focus on mythological/fantastical/supernatural series, is charring out a new generation of insta-geeks into a culture where it is now perfectly acceptable for grown men to own action figures, and grown women to publicly swoon over sparkly young vampires, where the lead of the previously cult-classic “Dr. Who” recently appeared, for the first time ever, on the cover of TV Guide.
After decades of bespectacled, perpetually virginal and Asperger-like obscurity, the geek has inherited the Earth.
But at what cost?
Higher visibility has always had a converse relationship with counter-culture credibility, but considering that the essential nature of geekiness is its habitat on the fringe, popularity could, like the Earth’s atmosphere in “The War of the Worlds,” prove fatal.
Drawn by the radiance of validation, the thrill of seeing oneself reflected lovingly in the mighty eye of the marketer, of being not just accepted but lauded by those who once mocked, the true geek risks becoming just one of many cultural outliers left shivering in the light, having been systematically stripped of the feathers and foliage that provided both color and protection.
If everyone knows what the TARDIS is, and what the letters stand for; if everyone understands the origin of Orcs or that J.R.R. Tolkien was trying to create a new mythology for his Arthurian-obsessed country; if anyone can not only list the original Avengers but rattle off the Homeric list of recruits, or deconstruct the original relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, then what’s the point of being able to do so?
Watching early episodes of the Kevin Bacon vehicle, “The Following,” which premieres in January, this particular geek girl could not help both loving and loathing the fact that the central conceit revolves around Edgar Allan Poe. The truly dreadful, and mercifully little seen feature film “The Raven,” already stripped the knowledge of the poet’s mysterious last words of any smarty-pants currency, and now, apparently, even the ability to cite at will “The Raven” and/or “Annabelle Lee” in their entirety will mean nothing more than familiarity with the show’s website, a literary spin-off of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Armed with Wikipedia and an Idiots or annotated guide to just about everything, the average citizen can, in minutes, discover the tantalizing bits of canonical knowledge it once took years to accumulate — years in which some of us clung to our semi-secret predilections for fantasy or science fiction, playing Dungeon and Dragons instead of dodgeball.
Our ability to recognize and retain lists and lore, to recite poems or plots, to understand the archetypal yearnings that drive most genre fiction set us apart in a world more impressed with sports stars and cheerleaders. It made us special, and easily recognizable by others of our kind.
Yes, there is liberation in coming out, as Colbert has done, as a reader of appendixes, a dispenser of literary minutiae, and frankly, it’s about darn time TV Guide put the Doctor on the cover. Yet as we embrace the hoarding of arcane knowledge, be it the Grail theology of “The Da Vinci Code” or the iconography of “Battlestar Galactica,” we also threaten it.
Like a travel writer exposing her favorite “undiscovered” getaway, or a naturalist extolling the virtue of experiencing the Arctic first hand, our celebration of obsessive, repetitive and selectively collective devotion to certain books and films and television shows too often alerts the cultural tourists.
When everyone’s telling riddles in the dark and carrying Rima the Jungle Girl lunch boxes, there may be only one thing a true blue geek girl can do: Become a cheerleader.
For the record, 6:36 p.m., Dec. 19: An earlier version of this post spelled Edgar Allan Poe’s name incorrectly.
– Mary McNamara
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